Tuning Out & Tuning In: The Benefits of Studying Abroad WITHOUT Technology

by Megan Lee

One of my favorite travel bloggers recently posted a 10 year “throwback” to her time studying abroad in Florence. Amidst her stories of nights out on the town and cool conversations with the Italian locals, one item stuck out to me in particular:

I didn’t bring a single device that plugged in. We had no wifi in our apartment. Internet access was only found in internet cafes. - Adventurous Kate

It really hit me!

No weighing the pros and cons of actually buying a cup of coffee to score the WIFI password at a cafe? No walking into a restaurant and instantly scouring the walls for an open outlet where you can plug in and charge? No filters on your photos? WUT?

A volunteer talking with locals

Build Relationships by Studying with Local Students

How freeing this concept was to me.

It is rare an opportunity in life where you can go off the grid and not feel like a complete buffoon for it. As a study abroad student, there will never be a more prime opportunity to shut off your smart phone and do something cool.

Study Abroad Without Technology

Here are six solid reasons why you should take your study abroad program as an opportunity to go offline.

1. Increased engagement.

Whether or not you realize it, your constant need to attend to your phone has detracted from your real-world relationships. Without your technology in tow, you will have more authentic social interactions, allowing you to be more engaged as a study abroad student. You will be a better student, a better traveler, a better learner, and a better friend.  

Unless you are studying abroad in Cupertino, CA, technology won’t be doing you any favors for learning more about the local culture.

A volunteer playing cards with his host family

Get to Know the Local Culture - Spend Your Free Time Like the Locals Do

2. Your brain will work better.

Problem solving, preparation, thinking on the fly. Turns out we are all getting pretty rusty in these areas. The amount of time we spend with our head down, thumbs fluttering on our touch screens inversely affects our ability to think clearly (let alone to think at all).

Challenge your mind to work independently, to get lost and figure it out, to recall more quickly that random piece of trivia, to retain cultural nuances and subtleties, to absorb your foreign surroundings.

Trust us, you don’t actually need Lumosity’s games to exercise your brain power!

3. You’ll sleep better and wake up better.

No matter if you’re more of a “sleep is precious and I need a gazillion hours of it” kind of person or a “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” kind of person, we can all agree that there are few things better on the planet than a good night’s sleep.

Without diving too deep into all of the science-y reasons why checking Facebook before shut-eye isn’t a good idea (think: pineal glands, melatonin releases, and your eyes’ aversion to blue light!), just rest easy knowing your brain needs time to unwind and relax, away from your screens, before tucking in for the night.

4. You’ll be more open to new opportunities.

What kinds of opportunities will avail themselves to you? We don’t know, but that’s the beauty of your study abroad adventure - adopt a willingness to take chances, to go a new way home, to chat with that stranger on the park bench.

It is much more difficult to adopt the “Yes Man!” mentality when you are distracted by the internet in your pocket. Love her, but our best stories from abroad were never thanks to Siri.

5. You’ll feel homesick, but in a different way.

Longing for home is natural while studying abroad, some days will feel incredibly challenging, and it seems the only antidote is escaping into laptop for a good ol’ Netflix binge or Facebook creep session. We use the word “escaping” intently, as hiding away in your electronics is not a healthy way to deal with your yearnings.

Tap into your resilience, pull up your big-kid-pants, and don’t use the internet as a crutch for comfort. Seeing so many photos of your friends and family can actually exasperate your homesickness and make it more difficult to surmount.

6. You save lots of cash-money.

Seriously. Worried about wasting your hard-earned dollars on your smartphone? Leave it behind and turn it off, avoid forking out the dough for data roaming charges or your international plan. Unless your phone is unlocked, you can expect phone calls from Mom and Dad demanding an explanation for your $100 plus overcharges.

Fun...NOT!

But, but, but….

We know you will try to convince us that you need your smartphone for directions, for exchanging currencies, for updating Mom and Dad quickly. We get it; technological devices are highly useful tools that can add a lot of convenience to the life of a traveler.

A student chatting with a local while studying abroad

Don't be afraid to explore new places alone and make new friends along the way!

We aren’t suggesting you toss your smartphone for life, but we are encouraging you to think seriously about turning it off during your study abroad program. Whether you look at this as a lesson in detachment, a unique way to challenge for yourself for three months, or a serious test of your willpower, there is value in the act of studying abroad offline.

PLUS, there are internet cafes everywhere in the world, and while you may not be able to SnapChat or Instagram for the duration of your study abroad program, you WILL be able to maintain communication.

How do I do it?

If you need a bit more accountability to going offline fo’ real, you might consider finding a study abroad program that has a no WIFI-device policy, like Carpe Diem Education out of Portland, OR. We promise, group participants do survive! Here are some real accounts from real participants that managed to study abroad offline:

I felt more present throughout my study abroad experience. I did miss my smartphone at times (long bus rides = the worst), but it was great to lean on my study abroad friends for support and actually keep my obsessions with social media in check. - Courtney
I actually felt more anxious for returning to my smartphone after the trip than leaving my smartphone behind. - Olivia
I feel like I have a healthier relationship with technology now, and faced the hard truth that my smartphone usually detracts from life experiences. - Jack

It’s worth noting that you don’t necessarily need to go on a study abroad program that has aims of limiting student access to the internet. You could always leave your technology in the care of Mom and Dad, or simply put your device away for the majority of your trip. The latter method may take a great deal of self-discipline - but you got dis!

If you are looking for a truly transformative experience during your study abroad program, do yourself a favor and leave your technology behind. Limit your ability to escape into the world wide web, worsen your homesickness, or detract from your overall learning. Be sincerely present in your study abroad destination - you owe it not only to the friends you’ll make and the places you’ll visit, but also to yourself.